Director: Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay: Roberto Rossellini, Vitaliano Brancati, Sergio Amidei
Producers: Roberto Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman, Adolfo Fossataro, Alfredo Guarini
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, Mathias Wieman, Mario Vitale
Year: 1950, 1954
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 100 mins, 86 mins, 84 mins
Roberto Rossellini will perhaps always be best known for his brilliant war trilogy which put him at the centre of the Italian Neo-realist movement, particularly in relation to political and social issue films. However, the focus of Rossellini’s filmmaking shifted considerably with the arrival of a famous letter from Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman. “If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only "ti amo," I am ready to come and make a film with you.” Ostensibly a fan letter, it also offered Bergman’s services as an actress. But, given that the Italian phrase she includes is a statement of love, the suggestiveness of the letter is clear and the affair and scandal to which it led initially overshadowed the six film collaboration it also spawned. Although Bergman and Rossellini ended up marrying and having three children (including actress Isabella Rossellini), they were both married to other people when Bergman’s correspondence arrived and the romantic intent of both parties before they had even met each other caused an uproar that saw Bergman in particular ostracised from Hollywood for several years.
The affair with and subsequent marriage to Bergman had a noticeable effect on the style of films Rossellini was making and it is impossible to watch the trio of films included in the BFI’s generous new Roberto Rossellini Ingrid Bergman Collection without connecting the troubled marriages on screen with the reality of the director/star relationship. The finest of these three films is generally considered to be Journey to Italy, which is currently included in the top 50 of Sight and Sound’s famous 10 yearly poll of the greatest films ever made but my favourite is the spellbinding Stromboli Land of God, the first fruits of this productive collaboration. Bergman plays Karen, a Lithuanian woman in a refugee camp who escapes through marriage to young fisherman Antonio (Mario Vitale). Unfortunately, the good life he has promised her does not quite align with what she had envisaged, as she arrives on the island of Stromboli, an isolated community populated by highly religious and disapproving locals and ravaged by a frequently erupting volcano. Horrified and feeling imprisoned by her new surroundings, Karen at first wants to escape but then begins to make attempts to fit in and make a home for herself. But when all these attempts fail, she is forced to take drastic action.
Stromboli Land of God is a morally complex and riveting piece of work, featuring characters of great complexity. Karen, for instance, is our main point of identification and yet she is also opportunistic, wilfully flirtatious and often petulant. Antonio, meanwhile, is a sweet natured man ruined by the shackles of tradition and the pressures of expectation, which ultimately drives him to beat his wife in a confused rage. Although little happens in the way of big plot events, so much is bubbling under the surface in the shadow of the symbolic volcano. Bergman gives her best performance of the three films. She is instantly engaging from the moment the camera pans over to her and she tells us more about her character through body language than most actresses could with a monologue. The early scenes incisively establish the lack of passion in Karen and Antonio’s marriage, with one brutally brilliant cut juxtaposing their marriage with an administrative procedure. But it is when the couple reach the island of Stromboli that the film really becomes fascinating, with Rossellini’s camera eating up the uniquely oppressive setting in the same way it so wonderfully presented war torn Italy in Rome Open City and Paisan. Stromboli Land of God combines its narrative with realism, with many of the parts played by locals, and it is through this realistic approach that Rossellini obtains his most striking footage. The documentary sequences of fishermen hauling huge fish onto their boats (although it is distressing for a vegan like myself) or of the evacuation of the island when the volcano fortuitously erupted during filming, recall the docudramas of Robert J. Flaherty, particularly Man of Aran. The disturbing beauty of this footage complements the beauty of the film’s lead actress in contrast to her surroundings. Stromboli Land of God’s melodramatic finale is one of the great ambiguous endings and while its histrionics may provoke laughter, its surprising fade-out leaves the audience with much to think about.
Such lapses into melodrama are largely avoided throughout Journey to Italy, although its ending also makes a sudden and jarring u-turn which, for some, is the most magical moment of the film. Journey to Italy stars Bergman and the great George Sanders as a married couple on holiday in Naples. It is at once apparent from their passive-aggressive interplay that something has gone from their marriage and that this getaway will only exacerbate matters. With even less in the way of plot than Stromboli Land of God, Journey to Italy instead focuses on the small details of a disintegrating relationship as Bergman and Sanders embark on an unspoken series of jealous misunderstandings and longing reminiscences. Even more so than in Stromboli Land of God, Journey to Italy makes its scenery the third leading player and offers a sort of sour travelogue, like a holiday shared with an arguing couple you don’t much like. Bergman and Sanders are both good, although as the plot demands them to be fairly cold characters it is hard to feel much for them and when they agree to divorce it seems like a good idea. It is then that Journey to Italy abandons its realism to become an odd sort of fairy tale, as the couple are caught up and separated in the middle of a religious procession that somehow rekindles their love. This final twist is wholly unconvincing if taken on the film’s realistic terms and it has been seen as both a bold switch in styles which gives the film a little magic or a cop-out collapse to a film that had no other way of ending. I see it as more of a small glimmer of hope with a grim subtext; the couple’s marriage is still riddled with problems but they come back together because, when symbolically separated, they realise that they cannot cope without each other either. In an emotional sense they are as imprisoned as Karen was on Stromboli.
Whatever its ending means to you, Journey to Italy is undoubtedly a unique and compelling film deserving of its reputation within world cinema. Bergman and Rossellini’s final collaboration, however, is a feeble b-movie that deserves its obscurity. Fear is a tale of Irene Wagner, a woman who has been having an affair behind her husband Albert’s (Mathias Wieman) back. When an old flame of her lover’s turns up demanding money for her silence, Irene is forced to live in a state of constant fear as she struggles to scrape together the money and retain credibility in the face of a mounting number of unconvincing lies. Perhaps the most interesting film in regards to it comparison with Rossellini and Bergman’s real life affair, this interest unfortunately doesn’t spread to the narrative itself. Fear plays very much like a second-rate Hitchcock pastiche and Bergman struggles to bring realism to such hackneyed material. There is an element of suspense when watching for the first time but there is so little to relish in technique, performance or where the story ultimately goes (a naff plot twist destroys what little credibility the film had retained up to that point) that Fear emerges as something of a damp squib. It has little in common with the brilliance of the Rossellini witnessed in the accompanying two films.
If Fear is a poor way to round out The Roberto Rossellini Ingrid Bergman Collection, it is more than compensated for by a barrage of generous extras which amount to well over five hours of additional material. These extras include another Rossellini film in its entirety, the fascinatingly atypical fantasy comedy The Machine That Kills Bad People, which is sadly as unwieldy as its title but makes for a fascinating glimpse at the results of the director trying to break from his well-established pattern of realistic dramas and has flashes of excellence which make it a rewatchable oddity worth owning. Francesco Patierno’s hour-long documentary Bergman and Magnani: The War of the Volcanoes fascinatingly charts the scandal caused by Bergman and Rossellini’s affair for anyone interested in context, while Bergman herself is interviewed directly in the 37 minute interview Ingrid Bergman at the National Film Theatre from 1981. Journey to Italy has two commentaries from academics Laura Mulvey and Adrian Martin and the alternative Italian cut of the film is also included. Idiosyncratic Canadian director Guy Maddin’s My Father is 100 Years Old is a great short film collaboration with Isabella Rossellini in tribute to her father, while Living and Departed is an enjoyable video essay by Tag Gallagher. As well as these superb extras, the set also comes with the usual high quality illustrated booklets featuring essays on the individual films that we’ve come to expect from the BFI.
The Roberto Rossellini Ingrid Bergman Collection is released by BFI on 20th July 2015. Each film and its respective extras will also be released as separate DVD editions on the same day.